Why are All the Astronauts So Sad?
Ad Astra is about to mercifully vanish from theaters. Soon it will emerge, largely unviewed, onto video-on-demand catalogs and the New Releases section of airplane seatbacks. Within a couple of years, it will vanish beneath the mostly-unseen movie waves, like a briefly-loved toy forgotten at the back of the closet. Yet observant moviegoers will long remember Ad Astra for one thing: As the apotheosis of the Sad Man In Space Movie.
Why, I kept wondering while watching Ad Astra, is Brad Pitt sad? In fact, he’s so sad that he can’t hold on to a relationship with Liv Tyler even though she doesn’t talk much. Instead, he just glumly stares out at space, dealing with his daddy issues in portentous voice-over . Ad Astra features a shootout with dune buggies on the moon and also a baboon attack, as well as a swim through an underground lake on Mars. Yet despite the fact that Brad Pitt is pretty much the greatest hero in the universe, he just mopes around and misses his daddy.
Pitt’s character is just the latest in a recently long line of Sad Men In Space. In last year’s relentlessly grim First Man, Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong just grits his teeth and does his duty. Mostly, he misses his dead daughter. And when he finally gets to the moon, he cries and pitches his daughter’s bracelet into a crater. I don’t care how much Neil Armstrong misses his dead daughter. When you’re on the moon, no matter how stoic you are, you’re going to dance around and say goddamn, I’m on the motherfucking moon ! But instead, he just goes home and fights with his wife. Meanwhile, Buzz Aldrin seems psyched to be on the moon, but the movie treats him like a villain because he’s not a Sad Man In Space.
The Sad Frontier
Having seen and despised both these films, I found myself thinking about the origins of the Sad Man In Space movie. For my purposes, I’m only going to discuss movies that contain a semi-realistic or totally realistic vision of space exploration. Star Wars is a fantasy about knights with magical laser swords, and while Charlton Heston is certainly sad in Planet Of The Apes, he also travels thousands of years into the future, not particularly realistic.
The first non-silly space movie was definitely 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dave Bowman has a lot of problems in this movie. There’s a shot of him screaming as he goes through the Star Gate. But does he cry? No, he doesn’t, because Stanley Kubrick has bigger concerns than the Personal Dramas of some stupid astronaut. Kubrick uses a semi-realistic depiction of space exploration as a platform for exploring unspeakable existential questions about the origins of life in the universe, something that Ad Astra, with its daddy issues and potted melodrama, can’t begin to approach. So this phenomenon is definitely not Kubrick’s fault.
The emotional antecedents of the Sad Man In Space genre seem to be a couple of songs from the 70s: David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Elton John’s Rocket Man. Bowie gets away with it because the song is so fun and weird, and John’s song is clearly a metaphor for queer identity. They are both infinitely hummable and fairly short. No one is humming along to First Man.
The Greatest Pilots Anyone Had Ever Seen
The 1980s and 1990s, a time of great patriotism and nostalgia, brought us realistic depictions of astronauts as epic American heroes, flush with freedom and confidence and willing to launch themselves into the infinite, endless frontier. The Right Stuff remains one of the best movies ever made. Its astronauts don’t cry, other than Gus Grissom, who, let’s face it, really screwed the pooch. John Glenn’s wife isn’t half as hot as Liv Tyler, yet he stays devoted to her and never once mopes while circumnavigating the globe in a capsule smaller than a Kia Rio.
When Gordo Cooper rockets into space at the end of the movie, he does so to a stirring soundtrack, half Air Force fight song, half Tchaikovsky, celebrating the pinnacle of human scientific achievement. He’s not slogging about the moon to cello music like Brad Pitt does in Ad Astra. Chuck Yeager doesn’t cry when half his face burns off. These were real men, doing real-man things.
Apollo 13 is certainly a lesser movie than The Right Stuff, but it’s still a solid piece of astronaut-based space tension, starring a not-crying Tom Hanks as a man who does his duty and doesn’t mope about his family back down on the rock. He wants to finish the mission and come home alive, but he is not sad. Bill Pullman does moan a little bit up in the capsule, but he has the flu.
The Sad Man In Space movie began to take shape in the late aughts, with the release of the now-cult-classic Sam Rockwell vehicle Moon. Rockwell, as a lonely miner on the lunar dark side, spends a lot of time moping about his wife and daughter who he left behind. However, Moon–directed by David Bowie’s son–contains a solid twist, turning it into an above-average Black Mirror episode. And Rockwell’s performance is so fun and quirky that the sadness doesn’t really dominate. But the film still set the template.
Then came the dreary and endless Interstellar, an overrated Christopher Nolan puzzlebox about environmental apocalypse, time-bending, space travel, and an endlessly weeping Matthew McConaughey. The stakes in the film are high enough, but instead we just get a lot of McConaughey moaning for “Murph,” his annoying daughter played by Jessica Chastain. This man is exploring untold reaches of the universe, but he sure doesn’t seem to think that’s cool. Instead, he’s just moaning for the people he left behind. I’m sure I’d miss my family too under such circumstances, but, let’s face it, I’d be in motherfucking space. Enough with the Murph tears, Captain.
Crying in space isn’t limited to men, either. Sandra Bullock spends five minutes sobbing inside a Soviet space capsule in Gravity, which emphasizes space crying to such an extent that Alfonso Cuaron actually treats us to a close-up of Bullock’s tears floating weightless. Even though Gravity is mostly a context-less thrill ride about physics, he has to throw in a clichéd dead daughter plot line to make Bullock’s astronaut “relatable.” She’s not relatable. She is in space. Meanwhile, the screenplay sacrifices the George Clooney astronaut, a throwback to the cocky spacemen of The Right Stuff, for the crime of actually enjoying being in space. No one is supposed to have fun out there.
Arrival, starring Amy Adams, doesn’t take place in space, but it does involve space aliens visiting the Earth. And Adams does a lot of crying over her dead daughter, because in space movies, all daughters are dead. Like in all modern space dramas, Arrival features muted colors, thudding music, and freely-flowing tears. Anything related to space is just depressing.
A welcome exception to the modern Sad Man In Space movie is Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It contains all the realistic science of other modern space movies, and certainly doesn’t lack plot or tension. But Matt Damon’s Mark Watney struts around, bragging about what a great botanist he is, surviving with wit, vigor, and confidence. He doesn’t have to do an endless “psychological profile” on himself like Brad Pitt does in Ad Astra. Why? Because he is in space, and he is awesome.
So Why This Genre, and Why Now?
These movies don’t exist by accident. The 1980s and 1990s featured no Sad Men In Space, whereas our contemporary Men In Space are about 95 percent sad. I’m trying to figure out why. BFG contributor Rachel Llewellyn posited to me that this is about the “overview theory,” a psychological phenomenon associated with space travel, implying a cognitive shift in awareness based on perspective. She wrote, “all the mopey sad in space movies are an emotional misinterpretation of the overview effect. Hollywood loves any window to gaze pensively out of.”
This is far more intelligent than anything that I can concoct. But I have a different theory. We’re dealing with a generation of filmmakers, like Christopher Nolan, Damien Chazelle, and James Gray, who simply don’t believe in heroism. Nolan gives us Sad Batman and Sad Astronauts. Gray, who directed Ad Astra, turned one of the greatest explorers of all time into Sad Charlie Hunnam in The Lost City Of Z. And Chazelle is one of the most emo directors in American movie history. They perfectly reflect their cultural moment.
When Philip Kaufman made The Right Stuff, America was riding high on a wave of patriotic glory. A lot of that glory was bullshit, but there was also genuine pride in place coming out of the incredibly grim 1970s. Our Sad Men In Space directors reflect an opposite view of America, of a country born from the original sin of slavery, where fascism is endlessly ascendant, where none of our great achievements can wash away a feeling of impending self-inflicted apocalypse. These are movies by gaslit rich liberals for gaslit rich liberals. And it’s kind of ironic, since we’re about to enter the second great era of space exploration. We have Space X, Forever Musk, and Space Force, maybe started by Donald Trump but inherited by everyone else. Meanwhile, while we dither about, weeping out of cinematic portholes, India may one day land people on Mars.
American directors may like their Sad Man In Space movies, but people of optimism are still looking toward the stars. This is a time to cheer, not cry. Let’s go to space!